New York

Cindy Sherman

Metro Pictures

Cindy Sherman’s most recent show—a series of photographic glosses on Western art-historical subjects from the 15th through the 19th centuries—was interesting primarily as a case study in the mass reception of contemporary art. Transformed by the crowds that poured into the gallery, the vast space resembled the Impressionist wing of the Met on a busy Sunday. For three successive weeks Sherman’s show was written up in the New York Times, according it the kind of cultural legitimation usually reserved for traditional Masterpieces. The hype surrounding this show made it difficult to discern exactly what sort of content Sherman proffered.

Sherman came to prominence as one of the “pictures” artists of the late ’70s. Read through a screen of sometimes recondite post-Structuralist and Frankfurt-School theory, her work was championed as a broad-based critique of representation. Focusing on the feminine stereotype, Sherman’s photographs, it was argued, “revealed” the constructedness, the fakeness of representations taken as facts of nature, and ultimately undermined the hallowed fiction of the unitary subject. Conforming herself to innumerable stereotypic personae, Sherman could be everyone in her art and as such she was no one (in her art). If Sherman’s gestures initially proved liberating, it seems that art which began as a critique of myth has degenerated into mythification. Sherman has become simply “that woman who dresses up in front of the camera,” for the delight and delectation of all. In this show, she’s doing Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, playing a woman who travels through the ages, ceaselessly changing personae and even gender. The pictures on display here betray no trace of critical engagement with their sources. Piero, Holbein, Ingres, David—Sherman tirelessly recombines references to these art-historical heroes to engender entertaining mutants, but while decontextualization renders the images funny or pretty or grotesque, it deprives them of complexity. A few of these pictures—in particular one of Sherman gotten up as an 18th-century courtesan with fake breasts and an alarming feather fan—have the visual concision of the artist’s best work. By and large however, they are placid, even flat. Of course, it might be argued that the exhibition functions as a “deconstruction” of the portrait genre, just as her earlier self-portraiture could be read as a critique of feminine stereotypes, but it’s questionable whether the archive of Western art history is as immediately available to us as B-movies of the ’50s. It’s also formulaic to take the successful strategies of earlier work and apply them indiscriminately to an alien field.

David Rimanelli